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Conrack (1974) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

pat island skeffington students

Principal social themes: education/literacy, homelessness/poverty, racism/civil rights

20th Century Fox. PG rating. Featuring: Jon Voight, Paul Winfield, Hume Cronyn, Madge Sinclair, Tina Andrews, Antonio Fargas, Ruth Attaway, James O’Reare, Gracia Lee, C. P. MacDonald, Jane Moreland, Thomas Horton, Nancy Butler, Robert W. Page, John Kennedy. Written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. based on the novel The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo. Edited by Frank Bracht. Music by John Williams. Produced by Martin Ritt and Harriet Frank Jr. Directed by Martin Ritt. Color. 107 minutes.


Pat Conroy, the popular author of The Prince of Tides and The Lords of Discipline , was originally a teacher, and his experiences instructing a group of poor black children on a small island off the coast of South Carolina in 1969 provided the basis for his autobiographical novel The Water Is Wide . The book was quickly picked up for major film treatment starring Jon Voight as Conroy. The picture was principally filmed on St. Simons Island, Georgia. When released, Conrack became a modest hit domestically, but a blockbuster in many international markets. Conrack also received a number of critical awards.


In March 1969, Pat Conroy is appointed the new teacher of Yamacraw, a small, impoverished island off the coast of South Carolina. The residents are exclusively black, except for the owner of the general store. Pat is startled at the very low education level of the two dozen children at the one-room school. The students cannot even pronounce his name correctly, and he lets them call him “Conrack.” The principal, Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair), calls the students her “babies,” and she warns Pat that the children are lazy and need discipline. Pat believes that traditional educational methods have left these kids behind, so he instigates a free-wheeling, stream of consciousness style, jumping from one topic to another, hoping to stimulate their interest. At random, he switches topics, asking questions about history, baseball, poetry, pop culture, astronomy, and geography. Slowly, the children begin to respond. When he takes them on a field trip around the island, identifying wild flowers, Pat is attacked by a hermit named Mad Billy (Paul Winfield). Later, Mad Billy apologizes and offers to trade moonshine, his only viable commodity, to Pat if he would teach him to read and write. Pat also hires Mary, a teenage local, as a cook and tries to persuade her to attend school. Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn), the district school superintendent, visits the island to observe Pat’s methods. Skeffington is amiable but very old-fashioned. When they go to the general store for a drink, Skeffington rails against the Vietnam War protesters they see on television. The superintendent becomes upset when he sees that one of the marchers is Ralphie, his own estranged son. Since Pat wears long hair and also opposes the war, Skeffington is not impressed with him either. A few weeks later, he pays a surprise return visit to the island to warn Pat that he has complaints about his teaching methods and about being late to class. Pat suspects Mrs. Scott as the source of the bad reports, but the response of the students convinces Pat that his methods are succeeding. When one of the locals drowns, Pat learns that most of the islanders cannot swim. He takes his class to the beach and teaches them to swim. He plays classical music for them, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony . All the students agree to attend summer school, and Pat arranges more field trips around the island. He finds a projector and screens The Black Swan , an old pirate movie with Tyrone Power for them, the first film ever seen by most of the class, who have never been off the island. In the fall, Pat wants to take the class to Beaufort on the mainland so the kids could go trick-or-treating on Halloween. Skeffington disapproves of this outing and orders Pat to keep his kids “on the other side.” Pat carries through with his plans, which go very well. Skeffington treats the kids kindly when they come to his door on Halloween, however he fires Pat a few days later. Mrs. Scott urges Pat to fight for his job, saying she will back him because she knows he loves the “babies.” The teacher appeals to Skeffington to reconsider. The superintendent listens to him patiently, but does not change his mind. Pat rents a sound truck in Beaufort, saying that the old South will have to make way for a new South where racial prejudice will no longer be tolerated. When Pat packs and leaves the island, his students see him off at the dock. As his boat pulls off, they play the recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to demonstrate that his influence will not be forgotten.


Conrack is an unusual film noted for its vital and energetic approach to education and its overall lyrical and inspirational tone. The picture is unusually rich with topics for discussion. Why was Pat’s approach with the children successful? Why did they respond? Would he have been as successful in an urban school? Consider the pessimistic rationale behind Mrs. Scott’s attitude, being tough on the kids because the world (and “the man”) will be tough on them. Pat, on the other, is an idealist, trying to get his students to reach out and attempt the impossible. The long-term impact of Pat’s approach is not apparent in the film, but the change in Mary is a modest indication of his influence, when she rejects the offer to move in with a man named Quickfellow. Also note how Pat himself changes. At first, he largely talks over the heads of his students, but by the time he introduces them to Beethoven (“Beetcloven”) and prepares them to listen to the composer’s Fifth Symphony , he speaks in terms that the students can grasp. The consequences of poverty are also stressed in the film, and although it is never directly addressed, Conrack rather clearly spells out that education is the only forceful and effective solution to overwhelming poverty. Racism is another major social issue considered in Conrack . Is the racism portrayed in the film primarily fueled by hatred or simply habit? Could Skeffington be seen as a passive racist? Pat encounters three reactions when he seeks to board the black children in Beaufort: Some slam the door in his face; Some say they need to check with their spouse, and others simply say “OK.” How convincing are Pat’s criticisms when he rents the sound truck? Why does this scene fall flat? In contrast, the final episode, when the children gather on the dock and play the Beethoven Fifth Symphony , is extraordinarily moving and effective, closing the film at a very high point.

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